Murther & Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

Worse, he has become a Tory, for the Castle expects any servant to support the Earl’s candidate at an election with his cheers, and sometimes with his fists, and, although Thomas is not yet of the financial rank that would give him a vote, he has listened with reverence over the years as Mr. Fewtrell held forth in the servants’ hall against the iniquities of Radicals and Reformers, and levellers of all kinds. Thomas has turned his coat, but he knows, and his family know, that he has turned it for a velvet coat with silver buttons, and it takes a great deal of principle to speak against that. Indeed, principle has begun to run low in the Gilmartin family after the death of Young Wesley, by then Old Wesley, in 1850.


Finely educated as he was, it is unlikely that John Wesley paid any attention to that curmudgeonly Greek sage Heraclitus who was the first, so far as we know, to point out the psychological fact that anything, if pursued beyond a reasonable point, turns into its opposite. But John Wesley saw too much of life to escape the fact, and in a moment of terrible prophetic knowledge said: “Godliness begets Industry; Industry begets Wealth; Wealth begets Ungodliness.” And I now see this law at work in the family of Old Wesley Gilmartin, who had been baptized by water and the Spirit and accepted into the Christian family by a direct disciple of Wesley himself, a man who had been confirmed in the ministry by Wesley, and had profited by the good counsel of his great master.

Old Wesley had not been an imaginative man, and was little troubled by discontent. He was industrious, and sure enough Industry — all that buying of red flannel in prodigious lengths of 132 yards, all those trains of pack-horses over the hills to Scotland, all that honest, moderate profit — brought Wealth, or what was Wealth in the circumstances in which he lived. His Godliness was, however, the great concern of his life, and when I watch his death I know him to be a truly good man, firm in his faith, if narrow in his intellect.

What about the Wealth? It was plain that Samuel, as the eldest son and his father’s right hand, should carry on the business. But there was money — money in a leather bag under the boards of the parlour floor — and when it was all counted up, and Old Wesley’s few debts were paid, there was a little more than seven hundred pounds for each son.

Thomas takes his money, and takes the bag, and hides both in a place where he keeps his own savings, from his wages and the tips, still called “vails,” that came his way at the Castle.


Samuel now has the busi­ness, and employs weavers because he has grown too great for the drudgery of the loom. He also has his stepmother to keep; being the eldest son is not all gain, for she inherits nothing except her clothes and some pieces of furniture which are, by agreement, her own. He also inherits the eco­nomic situation of his time, and it is troublesome.

The Scotch Trade is on the wane, for country women no longer wear so many red petticoats or the red cloaks which defy rain and snow. They are even giving up the steeple-crown hats that were handed down from mother to daughter, sometimes for four generations. Cleanliness and dress are taking on new forms.

Is Samuel reconciled to a loss of income? Not he.

Samuel is godly. He gives a yearly tenth of what he makes to the chapel, for its maintenance and for the poor. He honours his stepmother and she lives a life of ease and con­tentment. He prays night and morning, but his prayers are not so feeling, so unctuous, as those of Old Wesley. God has brought him prosperity, and it is not surprising that, to a mind like his, prosperity looks like solid evidence of God’s favour. God is, in fact, a business partner. Is it God’s will that he should cling to a declining trade? God, like fortune, fav­ours the bold.

Thus it is that Samuel looks about him and sees that the trains of pack-horses are giving way to the steam trains that are being built all over Wales. Samuel is not a big enough man, financially, to buy into the railway companies and he has a peasant mistrust of railway shares, which he could buy if he wanted them. But as he rides here and there on his business he sees that the armies of men who build the rail­ways must have food where they work, and it is not easily found in the mountains. So he buys a couple of carts, and makes an arrangement with the gangers who employ the railway builders that the men shall buy food from his carts, and from his alone. Intruders are warned off. It is not more than a year or so before he has pretty much given up the Scotch Trade to those who are so blind as to continue it, and his weavers are now pushing the carts every day to where the workers are, and bread, and cheese, and bacon and beer are sold to the workers in a lively trade, and Samuel is richer than his father could have believed.

He leaves his stepmother in the old house in Llanfair, and moves to larger and more convenient quarters down the val­ley, in Trallwm, where provisions are to be bought cheaper and distributed more widely. He lives over his place of busi­ness, but his house is finer than his father’s, and in the bigger Trallwm chapel he is known as a substantial man and — John Wesley would have frowned at this — he is admired as a Big Giver.

Could he do all this and still be a godly man, in his father’s understanding of the term? Godliness has brought Wealth, and where there is Wealth, Industry takes on another colour.

The colour, of course, is that of Samuel’s own nature, and though I can see that he is not, in a coarse sense, a carnal man, he is undoubtedly a fleshy one. He has grown physi­cally big, for, though he is not tall, and he is too hard of body to be strictly fat, he has become a man whose clothes demand a lot of good cloth. He takes to a tall hat even on weekdays. He has a large and impressive watch-chain, of the sort called an Albert, because the fashion was set by the Prince Consort; his watch is of the largest, loudest-ticking, most infallible sort. He even affects a gold brooch in his satin stock, although his wife has doubts about it and wonders if it is not a vanity. A man needs a watch, of course, but a brooch — ? But Samuel is not ruled by his wife and he likes the brooch. It is the headlight of his engine.

For to my eyes, Samuel looks uncommonly like the engine of one of the new railway trains. His broad short figure, crowned by the very tall black hat of the day, and the short steps of his short legs, make him appear to advance as if on wheels, inexorably. He is on his way and no one shall stop him.

Samuel is what the town calls “long-headed.” He is a reflecting man, and he reflects a great deal on what may bring him a profit. His fine clothes, which need so much cloth, give him a new idea. The railways are pretty much all built, but in the new world of the nineteenth century people of any account have ceased to wear old indestructible clothes, patched and mended, as once they did. Only the poor con­tinue to wear the clothes that look almost like the costume of a harlequin, so patched are they with any cloth that came handy. Clothes are the thing, and Samuel decides that he will be a tailor.

He will be, moreover, a smart tailor. Not to say fashion­able, because that would alarm the farmers and local trades­men who will be his customers, but he will offer something better than the garments made by the inept botcher whose failing shop he buys, and whose clothes might almost have been made by Robinson Crusoe. He will offer the new cloths, the tweeds from the north and the good broadcloths from London, the fancy waistcoats to wear to chapel and smartly cut, dropleaf-front breeches of whipcord for farmers who are rising in the world and want the world to take notice. He is not appealing to dandies, for there are none; but he is aiming at solid men, below the gentleman rank but of proven worth, like himself. His fine broadcloth is impeccable, but of a pro­vincial cut, and the full copper beard he wears, with a shaven upper lip, marks him firmly as a Trallwm man.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson